One of my favorite new albums is Oakland folk singer Aireene Espiritu’s “Back Where I Belong,” a project focusing on songs by or associated with Bay Area R&B great Sugar Pie DeSanto.
It’s one of four new roots-music-with-a-twist projects released by the pianist Jim Pugh’s Little Village Foundation. The CD that’s gotten the lion’s share of attention, not undeservedly, is Indian-born blues harmonica player Aki Kumar’s “Aki Goes to Bollywood.” But the Philippine-born Espiritu’s tribute to the great Filipina R&B singer who recorded for Chess Records in the 1960s is similarly head-turning, with arrangements filtered through her love of American roots music.
Backed by a top-shelf band led by Norwegian-born guitarist and producer Kid Andersen (who recorded the project in his Greaseland Studios in San Jose), Espiritu plays tenor ukulele and belts out songs in an array of styles. She sings spirituals, Motown, blues, R&B and even covers several songs associated with Pinoy rock icon Freddie Aguilar, infusing Philippine standards with Oakland soul. But at the heart of the album is DeSanto, who wrote some great tunes. Espiritu delivers her “Going Back Where I Belong” with total conviction, and lets her wicked side out on “Witch For a Night.” But my favorite track is her aching version of “My Illusions,” an overlooked b-side from a 1970 DeSanto single. – By Andrew Gilbert